Foam rollers aren’t magic, but they can be handy for certain pre- and post-exercise movements. Here are the two main ways to use yours.
Before a workout, in place of stretching
If you’re familiar with a type of stretch in which you hold a position for 30 seconds or so, sinking deeper and deeper to a point of mild discomfort, that’s static stretching. It’s not necessary (even though it’s traditional for many athletes) and has a few downsides. If you stretch too hard you could strain a muscle, and there’s evidence that stretching right before a workout can reduce your muscles’ ability to produce maximum force.
As a substitute, many people now prefer dynamic stretching, in which you move your body through the desired range of motion. Running in place while kicking your butt, for example, is a dynamic version of the traditional static quad stretch.
But a third option is to foam roll the body part you would otherwise stretch, instead of actually stretching it. This serves a similar purpose as dynamic stretching, because your muscles get a chance to move around; studies show that it can improve your range of motion when done before exercise. So if something tends to feel tight when you work out, you can foam roll that body part before you get started
After or between workouts, in place of massage
Squishing your muscles around on a foam roller is a form of self-massage, which many people enjoy after a workout or as a way to get moving without exerting themselves too much on a rest day.
The science is still out on exactly whether and how massages work for “recovery” or for easing sore muscles. Massages don’t “flush lactic acid” or other toxins, but some studies support the idea that damaged muscles might repair themselves slightly faster with massage.
More importantly, it feels good. If you feel like you have knots or trigger points in your muscles, or if you just always feel better after a foam rolling session, that’s a perfectly good reason to take some time rolling out.
How to use a foam roller to massage your muscles
Use the roller by placing it on the floor, then positioning some part of your body on top of the roller. (Sit on it if you want to foam roll your glutes, for example.)
From there, you’ll put your hands and feet on the floor, or most of them anyway, and move back and forth, rolling yourself over the foam cylinder.
Since gravity is applying the pressure, you can make the massage feel gentler by supporting more of your weight on your hands and feet, or more intense by allowing the foam roller to take more of your weight. A larger, softer roller will feel more gentle, and a smaller, harder or textured roller will give you more of that “hurts so good” feeling.
All of that said, pre-workout mobility and post-workout massages are things that many of us find nice to have, but they’re not essential. If you feel better when you don’t foam roll, listen to your body.
This article was originally published in November 2020.